There are probably fewer American fans in Sochi than at previous Winter Games, partly because of concerns about security, and partly because of the time and expense it takes to get to the Russian resort town on the Black Sea.
But Americans are represented there, with gusto, by a group of evangelical Christians who call themselves the International Sports Chaplains. Members of the group have been going to the Olympic Games since 1988.
On a recent sunny day at the Olympic Park, with bands playing and fans strolling around the venues, the chaplains move through the crowd in teams of three or four.
Myrna Gregory hails from Brandon, Miss., near Jackson, and this is her seventh Olympics as a chaplain. She spends the better part of every day engaging with fans and volunteers.
Her fellow chaplain, James Gardner, explains it this way: “We love God, we love sports, so what better place to come than one of the greatest sporting events, every two years, to come and tell people about our belief in God?”
Gardner is a minister from West Monroe, La., and this is his fifth Olympics.
Most of the people here are decked out in Russian team colors, so the American chaplains stand out in their black cowboy hats, bristling with pins.
When people see the pins, they want to trade, Gardner says. He says trading pins is a good opportunity, because he’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got a pin I’ll give to you, it’s got a story. Can I share with you that story?” Through the pins, they share the Gospel.
Gregory tells the story to a young volunteer near the entrance to the park. “See this dark area on the pin?” she asks. “That represents those choices that we make that are probably not the best choice. I want to tell you that red represents that God loves us and that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. And when we accept his love and his forgiveness in our life, he makes us clean and white, just like snow.”
The volunteer, a lanky Russian teenager, nods. She’s interested, but wary.
“And one day,” Gregory continues, “when this physical body dies, which it will die one day, we’ll spend eternity with him, and the Bible says heaven is paved with streets of gold. And so, that is the story behind this pin. Have you ever heard that story before?”
“Uh, no,” the young woman says.
“Isn’t that a beautiful story?” Gregory asks.
“Yes, it’s a very beautiful story, but I’m so far from this aspect of our life, it’s hard for me to feel deep in it,” the woman says.
“In spiritual things?” the chaplain asks.
“Yes,” she nods.
“OK,” says Gregory, “that’s OK.”
And so it goes — Southern accents meeting Slavic ones in the Olympic village.
Gregory says this event has been harder than the other six Olympic Games she has attended, in part because there are fewer people who speak English.
She thinks concerns about security kept a lot of people away. Her own daughter didn’t want her to go.
“We had family and friends that said, ‘We don’t want you to go.’ And I really felt like God was telling me I needed to go,” she says.
Before these Olympics are over, 20 International Sports Chaplains will have answered that call to engage with people at the Winter Games.